Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blog Against Sexism: Sor Juana, 1651?-1695

International Women's Day, 2006

I've made several recent posts dealing with problematic gender representations in the arts and inequalities in society, and, rather than do something similar today, I wanted to devote this space to a woman from the past who continues to impress and inspire me. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a remarkable Mexican intellectual who wrote poems, plays, essays, and other learned works, while amassing what was probably one of the largest personal libraries in the Americas. She stands as one of the most accomplished writers of that, or any other, place and time. (A one-volume collection of her works is available in English as a Penguin classics paperback.)

I am convinced that describing and honoring her complex life and achievements is itself an act against sexism.

Though she had found favor as a young woman at the viceregal court, Sor Juana had been born illegitimate, and never lost sight of the particular dangers that unaffiliated young women faced in her society. Consequently, she took religious vows at the end of the 1660s; here's how she later described her decision-making:
And so I entered the religious order, knowing that life there entailed certain conditions (I refer to superficial, and not fundamental, circumstances) most repugnant to my nature; but given the total antipathy I felt toward marriage, I deemed convent life the least unsuitable and the most honorable I could elect if I were to ensure my salvation. To that end, first (as, finally, the most important) was the matter of all the trivial aspects of my nature ..., such as wishing to live alone, and wishing to have no obligatory occupation to inhibit the freedom of my studies, nor the sounds of a community to intrude upon the peaceful silence of my books.

In his book, Sor Juana: Or the Traps of Faith, (Harvard UP, 1988), Octavio Paz wrote of this momentous act as follows:
Sor Juana expounds a rational decision... The suitable way would have been marriage; the dishonorable, to live unmarried in the world, which, as Calleja [another biographer] says, would have exposed her to being the white wall fouled by men. Juana Inés' choice was not the result of a spiritual crisis or a disappointment in love [as some have argued]. It was a prudent decision consistent with the morality of the age ... The convent was not a ladder toward God but a refuge for a woman who found herself alone in the world.

So Sor Juana, a woman from early modern Mexico, actively chose an intellectual life, a life acquired through her choice to embed herself in a religious community. And it's important to note that though she became a nun, Sor Juana never renounced human contact, often convening gatherings of friends and admirers in the public quarters of the the convent after prayers.

In 1690 Sor Juana was attacked in print by an anonymous figure who was clearly protected and abetted by powerful figures within the Mexican Church hierarchy. She was specifically criticized for devoting herself to the production of secular works to the detriment (or avoidance) of religious subjects. Juana responded in kind, defending herself vigorously and thoughtfully in the Respuesta de Sor Filotea, (which has been called the first feminist manifesto).

In the years preceding her death, Sor Juana came under the firm guidance of her confessor, Father Antonio Núñez de Miranda, (a man who scourged himself with such frequency and severity that the walls and door of his room were spattered with his blood). While Mexico-City society was gripped by severe public health and political crises, it appears that Juana decided to move on from her life as a secular writer and embrace another, less public one.

At this same time she undertook an act which reflected her commitment to change, one which forces me to grimace even now as I imagine it: Sor Juana gave up her library, allowing the great majority of her books and scientific instruments to be dispersed and sold for the benefit of the poor. (Without firm evidence, we are left speculate as to whether this act was forced upon Juana, or was effected without coercion, providing yet another example of her considerable will and determination. However, given her inclinations, coercion seems the most likely explanation.)

Let me just repeat that: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz gave up her library.

She died of disease shortly thereafter.

Sor Juana dazzles, inspires, confounds, and mystifies. As an educator, bibliophile, scholar, and student of the past, I consider her to be someone deserving of the highest honor and respect.

In concluding, I can't improve upon what Octavio Paz wrote in the Epilogue to his book:
As a girl she conceived the idea of disguising herself as a man in order to attend the university; as a young woman she made the decision to enter the convent because otherwise she would not have been able to devote herself to study or to letters. As a mature woman she proclaims again and again in her poems that reason has no gender; defending her inclination towards letters, she composes long lists of famous women writers from antiquity on; she invokes Isis, the mother of wisdom, and the Oracle at Delphi, the prototype of inspiration; she chooses St. Catherine of Alexandria, a learned virgin and martyr, as her favorite saint; she defends her right to secular learning as a preliminary to sacred leaning; she writes that intelligence is not the privilege of men nor is stupidity restricted to women; and, a true historical and political novelty, she advocates the universal education of women, to be imparted by learned women in their homes or in institutions created for that purpose.

I read La Respuesta and several of her poems for a first-year seminar and fell in love with Sor Juana then. I've always especially adored "You Men"

For plain default of common sense,
could any action be so queer
as oneself to cloud the mirror,
then complain that it's not clear?
So where does the greater guilt lie
for a passion that should not be:
with the man who pleads out of baseness
or the woman debased by his plea?

Or which is more to be blamed--
though both will have cause for chagrin:
the woman who sins for money
or the man who pays money to sin?

and because, as Amanda says, you can't in for losing

With you, no woman can hope to score;
whichever way, she's bound to lose;
spurning you, she's ungrateful--
succumbing, you call her lewd

that should be "win for losing" :)
Thanks for commenting, Mickle, and for transcribing the poetry, here.
Hi. I got here via Siris. I long ago appropriated my mother's books on Sor Juana but failed to read them. Now I will have to move her higher up my TBR pile. Thanks.
Hello, Silvia. Thanks for your comment, (which has also directed me to your sites).
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